Information wants to be free, so we won’t pay for it

  • Many Malaysian websites seem unaware that intellectual property rights apply to online content as well
  • Others are more unscrupulous, confident that they can get away with copying and pasting others’ content

Information wants to be free, so we won’t pay for itRECENT events have got me wondering if, when it comes to intellectual property rights involving content, the dark underbelly of the Internet isn’t right here in Malaysia.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story on Digital News Asia (DNA) about how Malaysia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community had been put on alert that a mainstream television station working on an exposé might infiltrate their online ranks.

The story created enough of a buzz that another Malaysian news portal picked it up and ran it on its site. Lock, stock and barrel, but with a different heading, and with a credit tagline given to DNA at the end. At first, there was no link, and even my byline was missing. These were added in later, after I posted on the matter on a Facebook group called Mediatalk.

I had two issues: First, that this website was stealing DNA content; and second, that by putting our content up on its site, it was implying that it had a content arrangement with us. Given that we are in talks with other media outlets which want to syndicate our content, either can be damaging to our six-month-old business.

My post generated an interesting discussion on Mediatalk – populated by practicing and former journalists, as well as those interested in journalism. One veteran journalist wondered if the site in question wouldn’t pull the “news aggregator” defense, and went on to say that the Internet is pretty much a no-man’s land in Malaysia.

It has been that way since the advent of the Internet, that’s true enough. But discussions on Mediatalk and with other online journalists I spoke to in the next few days brought me to a set of uncomfortable conclusions: That there is a great host of Malaysian websites out there that have absolutely no idea of intellectual property rights; and worse, there are many which just don’t care.

After this particular incident, I trawled a number of Malaysian websites, and was amazed to see how many were copying and pasting articles from other content-generators – from other online portals to international wire agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press, and even local bloggers.

Poor Marina Mahathir, who has the Musings column in English daily The Star and who also runs a blog called Rantings, is perhaps the most popular victim here. I have seen her writings pop up in so many places, and all she gets is perhaps a link to her original article at the end. (Fat lot of good that link does, since the person would have had to read the entire column before finally coming to it, and so would need no reason to click.)

Information wants to be free, so we won’t pay for itRemember, we’re talking about wholesale copying here, and not a summary or rewrite with a link to the original. Neither are we talking about a commentary on the original, in which a case for “Fair Use” can be made – where you’re allowed to reprint excerpts of content you’re commenting on or critiquing.

And we’re certainly not talking about content aggregation. Copying and pasting whole articles from a bunch of other websites does not make you an aggregator, it makes you an IP thief.

So you can see Reuters, AP and New York Times articles on Malaysian websites – some paid for, many merely stolen.

The funny thing is that many of these websites mushrooming all over the place – whether dedicated to hard news or entertainment and celebrity gossip – are run by or employ former print journalists, whom of all people should understand and appreciate the value of content. But being relatively new to the online media scene, they are under the impression that if you can find it on Google, it’s free for you to use.

Some even feel that outlets whose content is being stolen should be grateful, because, you know, the message is being spread to a different or even wider audience.

But these are not the ones we content-generators should be worried about, because it’s merely a lack of awareness. One can hope they will learn that all those nasty things they hear about the Internet being a no-man’s land is only true for the unscrupulous, and that there are rules and regulations, from laws to plain old Netiquette, that govern the re-use of content.

The ones we should watch out for are the ones who knowingly steal content because they feel they can get away with it – their victims are huge media outlets which will not notice such a tiny little country like Malaysia, let alone a website hosted here; or are smaller websites that don’t have the resources to police their content or enforce their intellectual property rights.

The prevailing attitude is that “we’ll continue doing this until someone asks us to stop, either by issuing a legal cease-and-desist letter, or filing a lawsuit.” And even then, they figure they will get away with it because the courts in Malaysia are notoriously slow when it comes to intellectual property, and are not particularly Net-savvy either.

Some even have the gall to point to foreign websites doing the same, seemingly unaware that these are notorious websites. Why an actual news portal here would want to adopt the practices of such is really beyond me.

It’s strange that websites which depend on content to attract their audience should have no respect for content-generation, and this does not bode well for the entire segment at all.

To my knowledge, no case involving ‘content-stealing’ has been brought to a Malaysian court, but that’s only because so far, cease-and-desist letters have been sufficient. I do know from my time as an employee of The Star that the paper had on occasion issued such letters to other websites, even one or two foreign websites.

Many of those websites, especially those run by individuals, were actually unaware that they were doing anything illegal, but all complied with the cease-and-desist letters.

However, until a high-profile case is brought to court, I feel that most of these Malaysian websites will continue with their unprofessional ways. And until this changes, we will not be able to move towards becoming a mature, digital economy.

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